Dancing About Architecture

April 20, 2018

As I wrote my latest novel, which incorporates my love of music into the plot, I had all sorts of déjà vu moments.

The book is about a teen playing in the garage band. This was my actual life as a teen, so the subject matter would seem to be a no-brainer, right?

Not so much. Writing it reminded of when I taught my kids how to drive and suddenly had to articulate hard-to-explain concepts. The concepts were hard to explain not because they were complicated, but because driving is so instinctive, so intuitive, so gut-check-ish. Or at least it feels that way once you’ve been driving a while. So, for instance, I helpfully taught my kids that you put on your brakes when . . . when it’s time to put on your brakes, that’s when! Or you merge into interstate traffic by . . . by merging into interstate traffic, that’s how!

Having to put these concepts into words strained my brain, and this at a time I was already in full sensory-overload mode. (Fearing for your life when your fifteen-year-old is behind the wheel tends to have that effect.)

In writing “All the Wrong Chords,” I realized just how similar it is to try to articulate the experience of playing in a band, or making music any other way, for that matter. When all cylinders are firing, the experience is . . . aaaahhh. “Transcendent” is the closest word I can come up with, and even that doesn’t do it justice. But because a lot of the scenes in my book involve making music, I scrambled to find a vocabulary for something that seems almost mystically inexplicable. Was it Martin Mull who said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture?

So, yeah, I struggled. I struggled to convey how cupping your hand around the neck of your guitar is like embracing the lifelong friend you haven’t seen in twenty years. Or how singing a breathtakingly sublime lyric is like feeling a newborn grasp your finger. Or how sharing smiles with your fellow musicians during a soulful guitar solo feels like pulling a favorite blanket under your chin on a bitter-cold night.

See? I’m all awash in cloying clichés. Music will do that to you.

Still, I had too much fun to pull the plug. It was exhilarating to be transported back to the musty loft my high school band used to practice in, the punch-drunk laughs following the fortieth run-through of a new song, the tepid applause we used to elicit from a dozen or so barflies during show time.

Writing “All the Wrong Chords” marked the first time I tried to put those feelings into words.

No easy task, because those feelings leave me nothing short of speechless.

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